Barcelona França railway station IMPRESSION OF A BRIT Export, expansion… and Belgian entrepreneurs As a small country with limited natural resources, Belgium has long survived on the principle of ‘export or die’. In the Middle Ages, it was the Flemish who applied this principle most thoroughly, by exporting their own people as colonist farmers to Wales and even wilder places. But it was the Walloons, in the middle of the nineteenth century, who sold their technology and their skills to parts of the world as remote as Russia and South America. Richard Hill B elgian companies found their ways there through a complex process of export and expansion. One of the most important stepping-stones in this process was Spain which, from the 1850s onwards, was a burgeoning market for railway technology (as has so often been the case with las cosas de España, it was Catalonia that took the initiative first). The railway boom that followed was largely masterminded and financed by Belgian companies. The substantial Belgian investments in Spanish companies started in 1874 with the creation of the Société Générale de Tramways Électriques en Espagne, responsible for the creation and operation of a rail link between Barcelona and the inland suburb of Sarría. This was followed over the next forty years by a series of Belgian initiatives: the Central Catalan railway linking Barcelona with Martorell and other townships in the Llobregat valley, financed by Engetra of Liege; the Chemins de Fer Économiques en Catalogne, backed by the Compagnie Internationale de Tramways; the Chemin de Fer Nord-Est de l’Espagne, with the Union des Tramways 56 BECI - Bruxelles métropole - mars 2016 as a major shareholder; the Ferrocarriles de Cataluña, financed by Barcelona Traction, a subsidiary of Sofina and Sidro, the Belgian holding companies; and the Compania General de Ferrocarriles Catalanes funded by, among others, Engreta and the Banque Liégeoise. There was a major Belgian involvement in the creation and early development of the Spanish rail network. So there was a major Belgian involvement in the creation and early development of the Spanish rail network – one that Belgian shareholders in Barcelona Traction came to regret when they failed to get satisfaction in the case that came before the International Court of Justice in 1970. Belgium’s role in the developing Spanish economy led almost inevitably to involvement in the even more precocious economies of the New World. The primary conduit was Cuba, which was the location of the first ‘Spanish’ rail tramway when the island was still a Spanish colonial possession (Cuba only became an independent state after the revolution of 1898). One of the most passionate authorities on rail developments in Spain was an itinerant Briton by the name of Richard Ford. He claimed authority by the simple fact that he explored this vast country with the help of a railway timetable. His subsequent account, published in 1892 as ‘The Handbook for Travellers in Spain’, started with a stern warning on what such travellers were embarking on, sic: “The rlys. of Spain were constructed principally by means of French capital [n.b. Belgian French], and at an enormous cost. They are, perhaps, the worst constructed and the worst managed lines in the world, but they keep excellent time.” Such self-contradictory comments have to be seen in the context of Ford’s very ambivalent attitude towards all things Spanish. This probably clouded his judgment to the point of confusing las cosas de España with las cosas de Bélgica. But the trains kept excellent time…! ●

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